From Pizza Party To Art Contest, Bolton Innovates To Involve Residents In Town Planning

Jan 9, 2016

Every five years, Vermont towns are required to update their municipal plans. It can be an onerous process, and planning commissions often struggle to get residents involved. But Bolton has come up with some creative ways to involve all sorts of community members its town plan update.

Bolton’s five-year update isn’t due until May 2017, but the planning commission got started this fall trying to get residents involved in the process. As Planning Commissioner Deb Shelby explains, they attracted a crowd to the first meeting with a pizza party.

"In order to engage the community we decided that pizza would be a great way to encourage people to attend," said Shelby. "Which it actually was, we had a little over fifty people."

Next, the planning commission took its show on the road, holding neighborhood meet-ups in different parts of town. Shelby says Bolton’s diverse geography means different neighborhoods have different priorities.

"The purpose of the local groups was to get focused on exactly what’s going on in that geographic area," Shelby explained. "Bolton has, basically, four different areas of town … and that was one of the things that I think was really important, was to give each community an opportunity to express what they think was important about their area."

The Bolton Planning Commission has been stepping outside the municipal office building and taking its meetings to venues all around town.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

A municipal plan spells out a town’s vision for its community, including priorities for land use, conservation, recreation, businesses and energy projects. Town plans are taken into consideration during the Act 250 permitting process, as well as for projects such as cell towers, solar farms and wind turbines. State agencies also refer to the plans when considering things like transportation and downtown grant applications.

"The planning commission is five people out of roughly 1,100. This way we've gotten input from other people in town as well." - Assistant Town Clerk Carol Devlin

Carol Devlin is Bolton’s assistant town clerk, and clerk for the planning commission. She says the idea is to hear from as many residents as possible.

"The planning commission is five people out of roughly 1,100," said Devlin. "This way we’ve gotten input from other people in town as well and to see if we’re on the right track or if there’s things we haven’t thought of."

Later this month the planning commission is meeting with business owners to talk about how the town can be more business-friendly. And next month they’ll hold a session with seniors and caregivers to hear about their needs.

But it’s not just adults getting in on the town planning action. Devlin has also been working with elementary students at Smilie School on a month-long town planning curriculum for second, third and fourth graders. The students drew up their own planning documents, and gave power point presentations to town leaders. And, Devlin says, their enthusiasm for the process went beyond the classroom.

"It was so exciting!" she said. "And I found out afterwards that conversations we were having in the classroom were continuing out on the playground, were going home. There’s actually a club now that’s around one of the issues in town, which is the future of Wheeler Field up in West Bolton, and they have posters around Smilie going, ‘If you’re interested in Wheeler Field, the club will be meeting on the playground during recess.’"

Elementary school students in Bolton put together a multi-use plan for a property in town called Wheeler Field.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

And some of those students might also have their artwork featured in the town plan. The planning commission is holding a “Spirit of Bolton” art contest and winners in three age categories will have their artwork published as part of the document. Devlin says it’s another part of the effort to make the new plan more attractive and accessible to its end users, including Bolton property owners, board members and state agencies.

"Our old Town Plan was the traditional narrative style, and like many town plans sat on a shelf gathering dust," she said. "One of our goals is to make a Town Plan that’s user-friendly, that’s interesting."

Devlin says there will be a traditional printed document, and there will also be online components of the new plan. After the planning commission’s outreach effort is complete, they’ll work with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission to draft the updated plan.

Bolton planners say they hope other Vermont planning commissions will draw some inspiration from Bolton’s successful outreach efforts when it comes time for their own town plan updates.